Seven last words from Christ on the Cross – Revd Stephen Froggatt

The Seven Last Words from the Cross

A Good Friday Sequence of Devotions and Music

‘O Sacred Head Sore Wounded’ – violin soloThe First Word ‘Forgiveness’

1400 Father forgive them; for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)

Father, forgive them – Even on the cross, Jesus continues to teach and to set the perfect example of love. Father forgive them – Jesus repeats the words from the Lord’s prayer even with his last and anguished breath. Father, forgive them – Grace and mercy are to be shown even to those who crucified the Saviour.

In the Old Testament, the understanding of sin was such that it was a weight taken on by the wrongdoer, until released from it by the forgiveness of the offended party. We can appreciate this more if we understand our sin as a burden too great to bear, making us unable to function properly under the heavy load.

With this in mind, we can re-read Jesus’ words in Matthew 11,

Come unto me, all you who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

We start to understand the idea that Jesus willingly takes our sins upon him, and carries them as a great burden to the cross. As the cross becomes a metaphor for our sins, we observe that the weight of the cross is so great that Jesus stumbles and falls as he carries it. Yet still he carries on, picking himself up and once more shouldering the great weight of the cross for us.

Now we are ready to read those prophetic words in Isaiah 53,

Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.

When we gaze at Christ on the cross, we need an understanding of Christ taking upon himself the sins of the world – ours too – and that this burden is willingly borne on his shoulders. As Graham Kendrick so poetically writes,

My heavy load he chose to bear.

Now return to the Lord’s prayer, and in particular these words,

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

Jesus’ core teaching is so perfectly wrapped up in this great prayer, and these lines go right to the heart of it.

As Jesus prays for the forgiveness of those who sin against him by crucifying him, so implicitly is he praying for God to forgive the sins he is carrying himself – the burden of sin that is rightly ours.

We hear the words of Jesus on the cross, confident that his own prayer was answered, and then we realise that in doing so our own sins are forgiven as well.

In these words then, our first Word From The Cross in our sequence, we call to mind both the Old Testament understanding of the burden of sin, and the New Testament understanding of forgiveness being a reciprocal understanding as seen in the Lord’s Prayer. These aren’t the only pictures that we could call to mind, however.

A more challenging concept is the idea of sacrifice for forgiveness, particularly if we try to hold such a sacrifice tightly within our Trinitarian understanding of God. Surely, God sending himself to sacrifice himself to himself to save us from himself is a bit much for any logical person! We can easily tie ourselves into knots.

The well-known atheist Richard Dawkins complains in these words,

The idea that God could only forgive our sins by having his son tortured to death as a scapegoat is surely, from an objective point of view, a deeply unpleasant idea. If God wanted to forgive us our sins, why didn’t he just forgive them? Why did he have to have his son tortured?

I find the response more satisfying in the context not of torture but of self-giving; not of sacrifice but of forgiveness: as Jesus prays for the forgiveness of his executioners, so the burden of our sins is also forgiven. In other words, I would respond to Dawkins that God DOES forgive our sins, and we are called to forgive others in the same way.

Finally in this Word, Jesus says ‘They do not know what they are doing’. Not knowing and not seeing are synonymous, especially in the Gospels. These people cannot see. Jesus has wept over their blindness on the way to Jerusalem. One of the core focuses of Jesus’ manifesto in Luke 4, was helping the blind to see:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lords favour.”

Jesus’ prayer, then, is not only that his executioners be forgiven, but also that their eyes be opened to God’s mercy, grace and love.The Second Word ‘Salvation’

1405 Today shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43)

There is no punctuation in the Greek New Testament from which our Gospels are translated. However, the placement of a comma in this verse has unfortunately caused a great deal of unnecessary controversy. We are familiar with the traditional rendition, but the original could also be translated like this:

Truly, truly I say to you today: you will be with me in paradise.

So which is correct? Is there a way to understand the text such that yet another meaning can be found? Or can we attempt the unthinkable, and suggest that all meanings are consistent?

As it turns out, it’s the latter. The hinge is our limited understanding of ‘paradise’, and indeed our limited understanding of ‘today’, strange though that sounds.

Before we begin, let us look at the context of this Word from the cross. The thieves on either side of Jesus, crucified with him, are traditionally named as Gestas and Dismas (from apocryphal texts not included in the Bible). Gestas was on Jesus’ left and Dismas was on Jesus’ right. Gestas was the one who kept jeering at Jesus, while Dismas was the one who repeatedly called on Jesus to remember him when Jesus came as King. It was to Dismas that Jesus spoke these words.

Already our mind is making connections to Matthew 25, with the sheep on Jesus’ right hand side being commended for their unknowing acts of love and mercy to strangers, and the goats on Jesus’ left being condemned for the selfishness and greed. Dismas was on Jesus’ right hand side, as were those sheep.

Remember that every word in every Gospel was written not as it happened, but long after the Resurrection. Each writer assembled his material to suit his audience and the emphases he wished to make. Thus Luke writes these words to Dismas at the end of his Gospel, no doubt with other important words of Jesus still in his mind. The last time Luke uses the word ‘today’ is here in Luke 23. The first time he uses the same word, it is in Luke 4, the Jesus manifesto mentioned earlier:

Then he began to say to them, Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Today, then, is the new ongoing present. It is the timeless new day of the Kingdom of God. The writer to the Hebrews hinted at this in Chapter 13,

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Similarly, Paul, writing to the Corinthians, put it like this:

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

2 Corinthians 5:17 (NRSV)

The New Testament Scholar Tom Wright draws our attention to the significance of the garden of that early Easter morning. Christ the second Adam has defeated death and God’s re-creation of the world is announced. The ladies rushing to the tomb at dawn have become the second Eve. The garden itself is the new Eden – the new paradise garden, but this time all humankind are invited to live together in love and harmony, literally a heaven on earth.

This paradise is what we understand by the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God. When God reigns, every day is part of that same new timeless present.

So when Jesus reassures the penitent thief with these words of paradise, we can hear the same words for ourselves.

Interlude – Poor Clare Sisters of Arundel (‘In Paradisum’) 1:40

The Third Word ‘Relationship’

1415 Woman, behold thy son! (John 19:26-27)

Our modern ears jar slightly when we hear Jesus addressing his own mother as ‘Woman’, both here and back in that first miracle at the wedding at Cana,

Woman, my hour is not yet come. 

Yet this was an endearing form of address at the time, and so we need to hear the love in this word. With these words from the cross, Jesus is caring for his own mother and preparing her for his death.

‘Woman, behold your son’ to his mother, then ‘Behold your mother’ to the beloved disciple, who was commonly thought to be John, the author of the Gospel.

Then suddenly we realise that a contract has been spoken. A reciprocal covenant has been made. These words are binding and legal – just as binding and legal as any marriage vows:

I, the man, take you to be my wife…

I, the woman, take you to be my husband…

The words of contract have been spoken, and these words have been spoken in the presence of witnesses. From this moment on, Mary is John’s mother and John is Mary’s son. Jesus has given his mother a son to replace him after his own death, to look after her and care for her. Jesus has similarly given John a mother to love him and care for him in the devastating moments after Jesus’ death.

If a Christian community is known by its kindness to each other then it has understood what these words from the cross are all about. The word ‘kindness’ has at its root the word ‘kin’, meaning family. Mary and the Beloved Disciple are now legally a family unit. A Christian church community which embodies that same family-ness, or kin-dness, is declaring that the members are related as Brother and Sister. All monastic communities know this through the monks’ references to each other as Brother. Similarly in the Convents, the Nuns refer to each other as Sister. Very often, the vows pronounced on full entrance to that community mark the adoption of a new name. My name may be Stephen now, but if I entered a monastic community, I might take on the new name Brother James or Brother Thomas. In the same way Jorge Mario Bergoglio took on the new name Brother Francis – when he became the current Pope.

For most of us, it is our Baptism which marks our new identity into the family of God. At our baptism we are born again into God’s family, with God himself as our Father. What’s more, it is God in love who declares us to be co-heirs with Christ, for we too are children of God.The Fourth Word ‘Abandonment’

1420 Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34)

Much of the crucifixion narrative is set out to embody the words of Psalm 22 from which this quote is taken.

Psalm 22 is a lament. This heart-wrenching cry of desolation is its opening line. Jesus frequently quoted the Psalms and would have known them by heart as did all Rabbis from his time. However, this time Jesus is doing more than quoting Psalm 22 – he is claiming it as his own.

The laments were particularly used in situations where the author felt that God was remote. Perhaps the enemy seemed to be gaining the upper hand, or perhaps in the depths of a depressive episode, the Psalmist felt so down that he couldn’t even sense God’s presence within him.

Here Jesus is crying out these words because after years of regularly praying to the Father, even in the bitter tear-soaked prayer of Gethsemane, now Jesus feels like that connection has gone.

Some suggest that it was at this point that Jesus became fully aware of the burden of the sin he was carrying. Perhaps it was at this point that he felt himself to be most vulnerably human. I can’t accept the simplistic idea that God somehow ‘looked away’ or ‘turned his face aside’ – I prefer Moltmann’s understanding that God himself was suffering there. As he writes,

When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God.

We start to understand this when we read in Philippians 2 that Jesus

emptied himself, .. becoming obedient to death, even death on the cross.

So did Jesus empty himself of all that was God in order to become fully human, or did he empty himself of all that was human in order to be fully God, dying for us on the cross? Perhaps there is no simple answer, but rather that we have to work hard with our theology if is to be deep enough to tackle such profound mysteries.

Putting this Fourth Word from the Cross back into its context we turn again to Psalm 22, only to find that it has already been quoted:

   But I am a worm, and not human;

scorned by others, and despised by the people.

All who see me mock at me;

they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;

Commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver—

let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”

The Roman soldiers and the passers-by have already been mocking Jesus. As have the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law. Thirdly, the two bandits on either side of him, even though the one on his right does eventually change his tune when he recognises who Jesus is. Later we shall see that the Roman soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothing, a detail specifically mentioned in the same Psalm, and a detail attested by all four Gospels. 

Significantly, in both Matthew and Mark, this Word from the cross is marked by the reference to the sky turning black. This powerfully reinforces the sense of abandonment. We are taken back to the very opening of Genesis, when the world was chaos and darkness and emptiness. We are waiting for God to speak again the words that will re-set the earth, the words of calling forth Light and Life. We know, of course, that these words will be spoken metaphorically by the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Day, as the world’s new Light and Life break out of the darkness of the stone cold tomb.

Many people find an easy parallel between the overwhelming darkness and the forces of evil. Song writer Sidney Carter writes of this scene, for example,

I danced in the morning when the sky turned black

It’s hard to dance when the devil’s on your back

I find it enough to think of Jesus the Light of the World – the light that flooded into the lives of so many people living in the darkness of the margins of society; the light that brought so much hope into the darkness of people’s despair – as Jesus hangs dying on the cross, that light is darkened as Jesus is consumed by sin and death. Yet that light will shine again, and once Easter Day dawns, it can never again be extinguished.

Interlude – Paul Carr: Seven Last Words (‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’) 4:24

The Fifth Word ‘Distress’

1430 I thirst. (John 19:28)

The Bible begins and ends with the Water of Life – flowing out of the Garden of Eden, and meandering through a multitude of passages in the Old and New Testaments, until we find its true source in the new Jerusalem, the Heaven-on-Earth described in the Book of Revelation.

As Jesus cries out, I thirst, we are taken back to any one of these passages, but notably, perhaps, the cries of the wandering Israelites as they complain bitterly to Moses in Exodus 17,

But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”

This is a significant choice, because God responds through Moses at Horeb, commanding Moses to strike the rock with his staff so that water might flow out and quench the thirst of the people. It takes the genius of poet George Hugh Bourne to make this parallel with Jesus on the cross, in his hymn Lord Enthroned in Heavenly Splendour:

5 Life-imparting, heavenly Manna,

stricken Rock with streaming side,

heaven and earth with loud hosanna

worship thee, the Lamb who died.

The stricken rock with streaming side is of course the body of Jesus, struck with the centurion’s spear after Jesus’ death, and we have John’s Gospel providing the post-mortem detail that blood and water flowed out from Jesus’ side.

Yet this was the Jesus, who in his lifetime, offered living water to all those who thirst. Referring to the provision of bread and water in the desert for the Israelites, Jesus now says,

I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

And again,

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, Out of the believers heart shall flow rivers of living water.’”

When he was sitting at the well, he spoke to the woman of Samaria,

Jesus said to her, Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

This was the same Jesus, whose power over water included calming the storm and turning water into wine. Yet now, vulnerable and close to death, it is Jesus who is crying out for water, once more fulfilling the words of Psalm 22,

   I am poured out like water,

and all my bones are out of joint;

my heart is like wax;

it is melted within my breast;

my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,

and my tongue sticks to my jaws;

you lay me in the dust of death.

The distress is real. We need to remember that ‘Passion’ means suffering. These final moments are almost too harrowing to watch, as Jesus hangs on the cross, exhausted, weak, barely able to breathe and so parched he can hardly speak.

We have to avert our gaze.The Sixth Word ‘Triumph’

1435 It is finished. (John 19:30)

On some Communion tables around the world, are inscribed the words of Jesus from the Institution of the Last Supper,

This do in remembrance of me

The word order seems a little strange to our modern ears, but this is the way the line was phrased in the King James Version of Luke 22.

On other Communion tables, church furniture and even Christian tattoos, the inscription bears the single word,

Tetelestai

This is the Sixth word – ‘It is finished’. The very reason why we can gather around that Communion table in the first place.

The word itself can be translated in a variety of ways. Grammatically it implies a past action with an ongoing effect, and so can also be rendered as “Paid in full” – the word that might be stamped on a Greek hotel bill when checking out, for example. All debts paid and no outstanding balance. Free to go.

We saw earlier that the notion of sin is sometimes understood as a burden, a heavy load that must be removed by forgiveness. Another way to look at sin is as a debt which must be paid. Indeed, one version of the Lord’s prayer includes the line,

Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

Thus the cry of Tetelestai, or It Is Finished, is a cry of triumph that the burden of sin has been completely lifted, the debt of sin has been paid in full, and the saving, redeeming work of Jesus has therefore been completed.

Have you ever asked for the bill in a restaurant only to be told that another table has anonymously paid for your entire meal, and that they left a short while ago? Wouldn’t that be amazing? Wouldn’t it be even more amazing if you could be that person randomly paying the bill for a family of complete strangers and not even waiting to see their reaction? Unlike the watch-me-give-to-charity beloved of social media, this ticks the box for Jesus’ teaching on giving in secret. Just a thought to put out there. If you did this in Greece, you would even be presenting a family with their bill over which the word ‘Tetelestai’ – Paid in full – was used to cross it through. We can start to understand the impact of the word.

When Jesus said “It is finished” he did not mean it in the sense of exhaustion – I’m completely finished and can’t go on. He meant it in that triumphant  sense of having crossed the finishing line and won the race. This was the race that Satan never wanted Jesus to run – indeed he tried to dissuade Jesus from heading for the cross even at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when he spent those long days in the wilderness. Yet even then, Jesus knew that the way to the cross was one way. He came close to doubting it all only in the depth of his Gethsemane anguish when he prayed as in this verse from Mark 14,

He said, Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

After which he knew that his work would not be accomplished until he had surrendered everything, even to the point of death on the cross.

As the old preachers used to say,

The greatest moment in human history was not when man walked on the moon, but when God walked on the earth.

At this point on the Cross, the work is now done. God as man in Jesus has accomplished all that he was born to achieve. We can even make the connection with the prophesy in Isaiah 56, remembering that according to John 1, Jesus is the very Word of God:

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;

it shall not return to me empty,

but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,

and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

The task is finished. All is accomplished. The world can now be powered down and re-booted.

God’s re-creation is just around the corner.

Interlude – Stainer: Crucifixion (God So Loved The World) 3:37

The Seventh Word ‘Reunion’

1450 Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit. (Luke 23:46)

And with these words, Jesus died. All the way to his death, even though death itself is inevitable, Jesus remains in control of his destiny, and commends his own Spirit into the hands of the Father.

The word Spirit is, of course, identical to the word Breath. Just as God breathed life into the first Adam, so the second Adam returns the divine breath to the Creator. Yet this is more than a return of the divine breath or spirit. Jesus’ words are taken from another Psalm which Jesus is quoting from the Cross – this time, Psalm 31:

Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.”

Psalm 31:5 (NRSV)

Thus by saying these words, Jesus is also declaring the Father as the Redeemer, the Lord, the Faithful One. It is God who saves, and with this dying creed, Jesus returns his Spirit to God the Father from whom it came, with whom Jesus existed from the beginning of time – as Paul writes to the Colossians,

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;”

Colossians 1:15 (NRSV)

And as the Gospel of John opens,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.”

John 1:1–2 (NRSV)

So here, the Spirit of Jesus returns to the Father; at the Ascension, the glorified body of the resurrected Jesus returns to the Father; at Pentecost, God’s Holy Spirit is poured out on all believers. This is the flow of God’s Spirit, God’s breath, through the great story of Scripture.

Luke adds the detail that it is at this point that the veil of the temple is ripped apart. No longer is there any need for a High Priest to enter the Holy of Holies – access is now open to all. No longer is there any need for a sacrifice – Jesus himself is both High Priest and the full, final sacrifice. I could quote from Hebrews, but the whole book really develops this theme. The price is paid in full, for ever.

Wesley’s hymn ‘O Love Divine What Have You Done’ closes our final devotion today, after which we hold silence before we depart quietly when we are ready.

1 O love divine, what have you done!

The immortal God has died for me!

The Father’s co-eternal Son

bore all my sins upon the tree;

the immortal God for me has died!

My Lord, my Love is crucified.

2 O look on him, as you pass by;

the wounded Prince of life and peace!

Come, sinners, see your maker die,

and say, was ever grief like his?

Come, feel with me his blood applied;

my Lord, my Love is crucified:

3 Is crucified for me and you

to bring us rebels back to God:

believe, believe the record true,

our lives are saved by Jesu’ blood!

Pardon for all flows from his side:

my Lord, my Love is crucified.

4 Then let us stand beneath the cross,

and feel his love a healing stream,

all things for him account but loss,

and give up all our hearts to him;

of nothing think or speak beside:

my Lord, my Love is crucified.

Charles Wesley (1707-1788)

Music as we leave in silence

‘O Sacred Head Sore Wounded’ – violin solo

Lent 4: Not more theology!

Theologian? You Guys Are Always Fun Drawing by Charles Barsotti

DISCLAIMER – I’m not nor have I ever been a theologian!

In my last post I spoke of how we need to to think of the church as vibrant institution and that would perhaps need us to think of how we speak theologically about vibrant institutions.

Sadly in many churches Theology has become something of a dirty word, somehow the opposite of mission. However theology just means words about God. Revd. Dr. John Taylor (of late and blessed memory) once said that there could be a theology about anything, even lampposts. It just required that asking of two simple questions – ‘What has God to do with lampposts and what have lampposts to do with God.’ You can replace lampposts with any thing else you wish.

So what would the theology of the church as a vibrant institution begin to look like?

Three great themes that underpin all theology are creation, reconciliation and redemption.

CREATION One of the marks of the church as a vibrant institution is that through the centuries Christians founded institutions based on love of neighbour. The unprecedented and still unmatched moral triumphs — its care of widows and orphans, its almshouses, hospitals, foundling houses, schools, shelters, relief organisations, soup kitchens, medical missions, charitable aid societies and so on. Pagan Greeks had only houses to help wounded soldiers recover and get them back to the front. Christians opened houses to heal the poor out of obedience to their Lord.

The Didascalia, a third-century Christian document, made bishops, the church’s key leaders, responsible for educating orphans, aiding widows and purchasing food and firewood for the poor. The church of Rome in 251 had some 1,500 poor people on its rolls, whom it cared for with food, oil, wine and clothing. And such efforts were before the lifting of state-sanctioned persecution against the church. Once official harassment of Christians gave way to imperial largesse, churches became the first institutionalized public welfare organizations in Western history.

And lest anyone think this history self-serving, look to the witness of Christianity’s most bitter ancient enemy. The emperor Julian sought to reinstate imperial worship of the ancient gods and to stem the rising tide of the church in the empire. His primary means? Encouragement of pagan altruism. Julian declared it a “disgrace that these impious Galileans care not only for their own poor, but for ours as well.” 

Christians won people because they cared for the poor materially and they did this through institutions. Pagans lost people because they did not. These institutions showed, and embodied, the Christian claim that God is not on the side of the strong, but is personally fleshed in one crucified Jew. His resurrected light transfigures all with eyes to see now, not one heart at a time (as today’s evangelicals would likely put it), but one almshouse, hospital, soup kitchen and food pantry at a time.

The church is a vibrant institution when it recognises we are all part of God’s creation and therefore we care for all of God’s creation.

RECONCILIATION Churches as a vibrant institutions can offer enormous good to countless people, to be sure, but they also carry inherent risk. Institutions can become bureaucracies and deaden the energy that led to the institution’s founding in the first place. Churches are not only witness to God’s good creation, but as themselves are in constant need of Christ’s reconciling work. They’re in need of saving if they are to save others.

In the fourth century St. Jerome praised a Roman aristocrat named Fabiola, whose money founded the first hospital in the West and whose personal zeal had her washing wounds and dispensing food herself. In the Christian East, another aristocratic woman named Olympias supported churches, convents, beggars, prisoners and exiles. In between institutional crevices themselves, as women in a highly patriarchal society, Fabiola and Olympias nevertheless helped create new vibrant institutions.

This founding impulse is not limited to the ancient church. For example, the Methodist revival succeeded not only because John Wesley preached to poor coal miners. It succeeded because it institutionalized charity to those most crushed by the Industrial Revolution. Wesley described the Strangers’ Friend Society in London as “instituted wholly for the relief not of our society, but for poor, sick, friendless strangers.” Later the civil rights movement in the U.S. was no momentary spasm of do-gooder sentimentality. It was a highly considered and planned effort in the black church to “turn Southerners’ notions of hospitality inside out.” 

Yet there is a danger in this institutionalization of hospitality. Christians are called to offer welcome to the needy stranger. Yet once institutions are founded to regularize this offering and make visible where the needy can go for care, that care can become bureaucratic, professionalized, distant from the heart of Christian love for the other. For example, ancient Christians founded hospitals to normalize care for the needy. Yet the efficiency these brought also, ironically, removed the needy from the community and locked them away. In one way this irony should not surprise us. God has no one other than sinners through whom to offer care to his beloved poor. Further, institutions founded as havens for the vulnerable can easily become places where the vulnerable can, outrageously, become trapped and preyed upon.

We need to recognise our churches as vibrant institutions need to be constantly reconciled to God as we offer the path of reconciliation to others.

REDEMPTION The work of making all things holy, traditionally attributed to the Holy Spirit in the Triune life, can be seen in vibrant institutions founded by missionaries all over the world. We call these institutions holiness-making because this function is largely unplanned, as wild and unhindered as the Spirit’s work always is. The Western missionaries who founded hospitals, universities and almshouses in, say, Africa, had no idea those institutions would train and equip a generation of African intellectuals who would not only demand that Westerners (like missionaries) leave their country. It would also produce missionaries who would be sent by African countries to newly de-Christianized Western places and to places European missionaries never hoped to reach. Institutions as living things can move in directions their founders never intended. In doing so they can fulfill God’s purposes, which are so much higher than ours as to induce not just surprise but wonder.

The emergence of indigenous faith is the lynchpin of Churches becoming or rebecoming vibrant institutions. Ambassador Gertrude Ibengwe Mongella of Tanzania, in an address to Boston University said, “I must thank the American missionaries who came and started the girls’ school in which I was educated. Without the work of the Maryknoll Sisters, young African girls like me would have no opportunities to get an education, to become a teacher, or to attend a university. But why are the Americans not focusing on founding schools and hospitals like they used to? Where are the missionaries of today?” Nelson Mandela could have given the same speech, having been educated in his village by Methodists.

Where indeed are these vibrant institutions? The Spirit blows where God wills. The Spirit blew countless preachers and teachers of the gospel across the sea in the modern missionary movement, and thousands more may come from the East and the South back to us in the spiritually moribund West. It seems to be what God is doing at the moment and the greatest hope for the future of the church. Who knew God would act this way? Yet as people produced by Spirit-inspired institutions, we should get used to being surprised. Who is a Christian without being baptized? Who a student without a school? Who a professional without training? And where do these come from without human institutions?

Creation, Reconciliation, Redemption. All three can help us see that institutions, created good, fallen and being reconciled, and pointing the way to God’s future redemption are integral to a flourishing life in this world. All three are important for our churches to be the vibrant institutions that God intends the churches to be.

God bless your Lenten journey, Alan

Lent 3: Who needs the church? – We do!

2,329 Church Service Illustrations & Clip Art - iStock

In my last post I spoke of how we seem to be hardwired into criticising the institutions we rely on in civil society and I included the church in this. Yet we cannot escape institutions, and nor should we continue to try. We need the institutions within which we already live to serve as the backgrounds of our minds and our lives, giving shape and form to who we are. In his book “On Thinking Institutionally,” political scientist Hugh Heclo argues that institutions enable us to be “mindful in certain ways, exercising a particular form of attentiveness to meaning in the world.” Vibrant institutions are crucial to sustaining meaning and purpose in our lives and in the world. As a Christian I would also want to say that vibrant churches are also necessary to sustain meaning and purpose in our spiritual lives and in the Kingdom that we inhabit.

For our churches to become vibrant institutions rather than bureaucracies we need to change the conversation we have about the church. However the headlines about corruption, clergy sexual abuse, financial misconduct, give us “performance-based” reasons for wariness. Some churches are, indeed, bureaucracies of the worst sort; some institutional leaders have been careerist bureaucrats who have betrayed the public trust and damaged our common life as a church.

Even more damaging, though, is what Heclo calls our “culture-based” distrust of institutions. Our romanticized search for “personal meaning” places institutions in the way of our quests. We become increasingly bitter when we learn that institutions are so powerful we cannot escape them.

One would think Christianity offers a way beyond the impasse. Christian wisdom illustrates our need for the church institution to shape and form us, as well as recognising the vulnerability of churches and their leaders to corruption. The reality and persistence of sin, understood as self-deception, ought to make us wary of the romantic quest for “personal meaning” through individualistic personal fulfilment. And our persistent capacity for sin reveals our need for the church to teach and train us, through faithful practices and holy friendships, to unlearn sin and learn holiness.

Unfortunately, many Christians have drunk too deeply from the well of romantic individualism. In todays world sin has not disappeared and we have suddenly become virtuous. Rather, we Christians have lost our own vocabulary and become seduced into thinking we can discover our best selves through introspection and self-help manuals. We have pretended that authentic Christianity can occur solely between an individual and God, or, for evangelicals, an individual and Jesus.

Some Christians who want to overcome individualism turn to modern expressions of monastic communities as an alternative. Yet even these communities and their practices cannot exist for long without institutions, so those romantic quests are caught in the same impasse.

Too many modern christians suffer from a neglect of “institutional thinking,” or appreciating from within just how and why the church is crucial to a flourishing faith and thriving communities. Institutional thinking requires an interpretive standpoint of affirmation and trust rather than thinking “about” the church as an observer or critic. Institutional thinking still requires critical attention to the failures of the church, but with “respect” of the institution of the church.

Christian institutional leaders, model the practice of thinking institutionally when we focus attention on the larger purposes our churches serve other than just existing. We advance this practice when we love enemies in our leadership and when we engage in discernment that keeps us aware of our own, as well as our churches, capacity for sin as well as redemption.

We need a richer Christian account of vibrant churches that is mindful of personal as well as institutional sin and redemption. As Christians we should have a clear sense of the end for which we live and move and have our being. We are well-equipped to narrate the vices and virtues that are intrinsic to thinking institutionally.

In this time of cultural turmoil, when economic challenges are troubling to even the strongest churches, we cannot afford any longer to be cynical about or hate institutions. It is time to develop a robust Christian theological imagination for, and understanding of, them. Indeed, we need to learn, by God, to love the institutions we need.

God bless your Lenten journey. Alan.

Facing Disaster!

This week I have been denied an opportunity to preach in person because I have tested positive. Be warned sisters and brothers! It’s still out there.

So instead here is my offering for Sunday based on Luke 13:1-9.

Sometimes when we read a familiar passage in the Bible it can reveal something quite new to us. At other times though the lectionary points us to a passage that we’d never read before so that we find in the old book something entirely new to us-something quite amazing!  One of those passages they don’t mention in Sunday School.

Today’s passage in Luke is to my mind rather like that. It’s concerned with our responses to disaster.  We are told that some people questioned Jesus about the deaths of apparently innocent people who had been caught up in a civil disturbance. Were their deaths a judgement upon them-a form of divine punishment? What is our response to be to events like this? Jesus’ answer is quite clear. He says, No their deaths were not a judgment upon them. No ifs or buts, no hesitation just a simple short word. No. I find that rather refreshing.

Jesus goes on to speak about the deaths of eighteen people killed when a tower in a Jerusalem suburb collapsed. Were they worse sinners than all the others in the city? Again Jesus says no, quite emphatically. It might be convenient for you to blame the victims of these things and sometimes the victims like to blame themselves. Perverse but true. The truth is that we are all equally at risk and we need not fear that it is some judgment upon us if we caught up in a disaster. That is good news!

We usually associate the good news with the word “yes” but this time the good news is “no.”

But what else has Jesus to say to us.

The commentary on St Luke that I read in preparing this describes both episodes as tragedies. It was a tragedy that these innocent people were killed. It was a tragedy that the Tower in Siloam collapsed and eighteen people died.

Is this notion of tragedy correct? I don’t think so. Tragedy suggests to me the outcome of a hopeless struggle against blind fate. This isn’t a Christian response. For a Christian the struggle against evil and suffering is never hopeless even though those who struggle may suffer and fall. There is always a Christian response to evil-it begins with repentance- a turning around- an embrace of the good. To say something is a tragedy is too passive-it’s not to make a response at all.

When we listen to the readings on Good Friday we might say to ourselves-that’s a sad story and we’d be right. However to say it’s a tragedy is quite wrong. Good Friday is not a tragedy-it’s the account of a struggle but also the prelude to a victory. It’s not called Good for nothing.

My own view is that there’s too much use of the word tragedy in our world. Bad things happen, often in the area of personal relationships and family life. People say-it’s a tragedy for everyone involved. It’s often just a way of avoiding responsibility. The option for repentance is always there-Jesus says so.

So tragedy won’t do but what about bad luck- or as people say these days –just one of those things. On the question of luck I would refer you to the remark of Napoleon who said he would only have lucky Generals. In other words you make your own luck.

Just one of those things. Another popular remark that allows us to evade all responsibility. When some time ago I backed my car into the Circuit Stewards car and dented it I could have said, it was just one of those things. The truth is though that I was careless and should be more careful in future.

References to bad luck or just one of those things are not very helpful to us. It’s too deterministic, too fatalistic.

So bad luck won’t do either Some Christians with high views of the providence of God want to attribute everything that happens however trivial, however evil to God’s personal intervention. Those who questioned Jesus about these two incidents may well have been of that mind themselves. God purposes everything so if bad things happen to innocent people perhaps they weren’t so innocent after all. You can meet with this kind of opinion in the book of Job. Oddly enough you meet the same sort of thing in the Book of Common Prayer in the order for the visitation of the sick. The priest is supposed to say to the sick person and here I quote: Whatsoever your sickness is know you surely that it is God’s visitation. Thereafter the priest is to call the sick person to repent of their sins. I can confidently say that your own minister does not do this or at least not in quite that way.

Jesus won’t have it. He won’t let this kind of perverted logic turn God into a monster. Jesus admits that these incidents were accidents-that yes an element of chance was involved. Bad luck no but accident yes.

Accidents will continue to happen but after each accident we are reminded of our need of repentance otherwise as Jesus said we may be caught unawares and then we shall all perish with our sins unforgiven and with rancorous bitterness still in our hearts. That would be terrible for us and for those closest to us.  None of us would want to die unrepentant with hurts unhealed and grievances still fresh.

This is Jesus’ second word. His first word was “no” and that in this context is a good word but there is also a need for a response. That’s also a necessary response. One such response would be repentance and a call for repentance is peculiarly appropriate for Lent

In our time people have been much preoccupied with the problem of evil. How can evil be reconciled with a God of love. Why do bad things keep on happening? This is a stock question in house groups. These are questions that the New Testament isn’t really bothered about. Explanations are not offered, the problem is not discussed. It’s almost as if the writers of the gospels and the epistles want to say that the philosophers and the theologians might want to understand the world but our task as Christians is to change it. The question is always not why did God allow this evil to happen but how did God turn this evil to good. The first Christians sought to overcome evil rather than explain it. Prayer and action were the means to bring this about. Persecutions and trials were expected almost welcomed. The question is never: Why do these things happen but how are we going to respond to them as Christians.

In the Venerable Bede’s history of the Church in England the story is told of how the plague came to the monks and nuns of Barking Abbey. The men were affected first and the women were spared enabling them to care for and pray day and night for the sick and bereaved. The Abbess knew that the plague would get to the nuns eventually so she asked them where they wished to be buried. The nuns prayed for guidance. Their prayers were answered one night just before dawn. As usual they had gathered in the chapel to sing God’s praises. Then the Abbess asked them to follow her out to the cemetery where the monks were already buried. The Abbess led the prayers for the monk’s souls. As she did so the sun began to shine on the eastern horizon. The air was so clear that the sun shone even more brightly than it does at noon and its rays bathed the south side of the Church in a warm orange light. The nuns knew at once that this is where they wished to be buried. The following day the plague struck the women’s part of the Abbey and soon the south side of the Church was filled with the nun’s graves.

To the modern mind this is an odd story particularly as its set in Barking of all places. And yet as we wait for the next flu pandemic not such an odd one after all. And they know its coming- at Hong Kong airport there are screens that measure your body temperature. In Britain local authorities have emergency plans for coping with a greater number of deaths than is usual.  (This was first composed over ten years ago) We need to remember that as Christians we need not be overcome and that there is nothing to be afraid of. In the story from Bede the Nuns don’t ask why and they don’t have any physical resources to fight the disease. They can only respond with prayer and love and this they do. To my mind they are not overcome-they achieve victory of a kind. They knew they were going to die quite soon but in dying well they would achieve a kind of victory. Nobody would describe their deaths as a tragedy.

Once upon a time there was a TV programme in the God slot entitled the Question Why. Why suffering? Why war and famine? The attempt was always to find or seek for an explanation. To be honest though the New Testament never goes in for this kind of thing. It never asks why? The key question in the New Testament is always how. How are we to live in the face of evil? How does God bring good out of all the evil in the world? How do we respond to the good news of God’s love? This is the question the nuns asked and they came up with an answer. A response is always possible although it may not produce visible fruit very quickly. That surely is the message of the parable of the fig tree.

In the power of the Holy Spirit we can embrace God’s way of suffering love and look for the changes God wants for the world and by seeking the changes God wants for the world we shall be changed ourselves. Prayer leads to action and action strengthens our hope.

Thanks be to God, says St Paul, who gives us the victory through our lord Jesus Christ.

Lent2: God save(s through) the Church!

Building the Church - Part One - Ralph Howe Ministries

In the world we live in today institutions are as easy to dislike as they are difficult to get rid of. In the western world we seem to have an ingrained suspicions of the institutions we need and use. The government, NHS, schools even the church all can provoke a level of suspicion that ‘they’, the institution are out to get ‘us’! Yet some of us seem, wonder of wonders, to see the good they have wrought and are called to lead them — from the hospitals where we were born to the schools where we were educated to the churches where we worship. How do we reconcile the good institutions do (even the ones we lead) with the bad of which they inarguably are capable (even the ones we lead)?

We often are called to pray for the institutions that affect our daily lives. We pray for schools and colleges at the beginning of a new academic year. We have been praying fervently for our hospitals over the last two years. Occasionally we pray for our Parliament, although I have yet to see a thunderbolt strike the Palace of Westminster!

Of course we pray for our churches, both at a local and a national level. However when we pray for our churches there are three possible paths we can take.

One path prays, “God save our church.” For this group, institutions are so important to human life generally that their collapse is unthinkable. We may find in this group leaders and financial supporters of our churches, particularly those under duress.

The strength of this position is that it acknowledges that the health of a society depends, to great degree, on the health of all its institutions. Just as it is extremely hard to have a functioning economy, let alone a healthy one, without healthy banks, so for our congregations to function as a missional community we need healthy churches and denominations.

In their eagerness to help society, those who back this position might overlook instances when it is necessary to overhaul existing institutions. Such overhauls can be painful, especially in the interim between the eclipse of one form of church and the birth of the next. Christians need only to think of the difficulty in the transition from a temple of stone to the temple of Jesus’ body. And perhaps more damagingly, adherents to this prayer can forget institutions should not exist only for their own sake, but for the sake of those they serve.

The second path prays, “God save us from institutions.” This group sees only malice. Its backers would read the current financial difficulties, for example, as evidence that banks, markets and corporations have only their own interests at heart, and that these come at the expense of all other interests. This group also may feel harmed by the church, leading them to conclude that institutional religion is essentially bad.

Those who take this line would agree with Reinhold Niebuhr’s observation: human beings tend to be good as individuals but bad in groups. We know churches that have scarred some people and have systematically oppressed others.

The position’s weakness is that it overlooks the fact that human life depends on institutions. The goods of human life — education, faith, health care, art, music — are social. The Church is defined by its congregation as much as its’s traditions or structures. There is an individual aspects to the church, but no one can pursue mission to its fullest without other people — trained people, dependent on knowledge passed down for centuries, enabled by gifts (monetary and otherwise) given by strangers and friends. Without people, a vision, a mission, money and perhaps buildings, the mission of the church tends to dissipate like water through open fingers.

The third way of prayer incorporates the strengths of the first two and avoids their weaknesses. It calls for the church to be a flourishing institution for the sake of the whole of human life in communion. The prayer is, “God save us through your church.” This prayer recognizes the deep pit of human need from which we all approach God: it is we who need saving, but not from institutions like the church.

God has no blessing for us mortals that is not institutionally mediated. God saves through Israel, ever-wrestling with God’s chosen people just as God wrestled with their father Jacob by the Jabbok. And God saves through the church: a people called out from the world to be joined in baptism to God and nurtured through Eucharist. One may judge others’ “organised” religions from the safety and isolation of one’s easy chair or the rigour of one’s study (the key word here: “one”). But Christianity joins us in Christ to one another in and through the church to a concern for the thriving of all of God’s creation.

This position will also recognise that while institutions are indispensable to God’s work, they are never frozen, unchanging, in their current form. Institutions are essential, but not static. The church may take many different forms, as dramatically different as Israel’s magnificent temple and Jesus’ vulnerable flesh, but it still is a necessary vibrant institution for God’s mission to be fulfilled here on earth.

God’s blessing through this Lenten season, Alan.

Lent 1: The Church is dead – long live the church.

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A time before there was South Parade Church? You couldn’t imagine it but there are some people, who are now in their 90’s, who remember a patch of land where bulrushes grew which is now the site of South Parade.

But South Parade has always had been here. Hasn’t it? It only has been here, as it turns out, since the early 1930s, when some of the older members and others watched its construction. People had to figure out the location as well as the design, not to mention several years of painstaking construction. Because of a wide variety of people’s vision and care, we now have a space that looms across the landscape, a sanctuary for worship and music, a visible symbol of the Methodist commitment to the importance of Christian ministry. All the churches in our circuit could tell a similar story of vision, planning and construction.

Modern Christians too often celebrate community without attending to the critically important roles that vibrant institutions play in enabling a community’s practices to flourish. Too often we take vibrant institutions for granted, forgetting they are crucial for creating spaces that shape and pattern human life and address fundamental human needs and yearnings. Because we have ignored the crucial difference that vibrant institutions make in our lives and in the ecology of our wider social existence, we too often have allowed vibrant institutions to become lifeless bureaucracies. We have watched once-glorious church spaces deteriorate and become shells of the vitality they once represented. Christian life suffers as a result.

By contrast, vibrant spaces, and more broadly vibrant houses of worship, continually make room for Christian wisdom to be nurtured over the course of time. We tend to underestimate how institutional spaces “speak” to people. Over the years, I have heard story after story about vocations discovered and renewed, relationships developed and reconciled, spiritual life developed and deepened, all occasioned by particular Christian worship spaces.

But not only the space. It is also the way of life those churches nurture. At their best, churches communicate and nurture vibrancy as bearers of tradition, laboratories for learning and incubators of leadership. Christian institutions give form and structure to our convictions, enabling us to cultivate thriving communities to be signs, foretastes and instruments of the reign of God. Seen in this light, faithful Christian living depends significantly on our ability not only to think about churches but also to think appreciatively from within them, to cultivate the practice of thinking institutionally rather than bureaucratically.

Vibrant churches are bearers of tradition. These traditions are found in the architecture, in the rhythms of daily schedules, in the formal and informal norms of the people who work and pray there, in the ways positions are described, in the ways decisions are made. This is most obviously evident in monastic communities that have lasted for decades and even centuries, but it is no less true of such institutions as theological colleges, congregations, L’Arche communities or hospices.

Vibrant churches nurture ‘traditioned innovation’* as a way of thinking and acting and make central the practice of ongoing learning. This includes honouring the gifts of our personal and collective pasts as well as repenting of sin, both personally and institutionally. Traditioned innovation focuses on the future to which the Holy Spirit is calling us, reminding us simultaneously that we need to be a learning organization if that future is to be faithful. Rather than pitting romanticized community over against sterile bureaucracy, or traditionalism over against newness, vibrant churches are spaces for learning traditioned innovation that bears witness to the Holy Spirit who is conforming us to Christ. Vibrant churches create spaces in which people unlearn sin and learn faithfulness as a way of life.

Vibrant churches nurture the gifts of leadership. Their dynamic internal cultures attend to the diversity of people’s gifts, nurturing people in their variety to develop the virtues, skills and perspectives that make transformative leadership possible. Not all participants in an organisation will have the gifts for transformative leadership, but all participants play indispensable roles in the overall vibrancy of an institution’s leadership. That is nurturing leadership makes each of the various parts of the church stronger and makes the sum of those parts even greater. By contrast, bureaucracies, not to mention toxic organizations, can take even the best leadership capacities and turn them into mediocre mush or sinful sludge.

Vibrant churches are not always born in vibrant times. South Parade emerged from the ground amid a national financial crisis. It began its ministry at a time when the world order crumbled into a world war. That story serves as a reminder that a crucial way of thinking institutionally is taking the risk to found new institutions that meet our deepest human needs; for worship, education, shelter, hunger, beauty, joy, community. As with South Parade, we ought to be willing to found them even in less than ideal circumstances, or especially in challenging circumstances. For it is when we recognise that churches are crucial spaces for nurturing faithful and joy-filled living that we will be even more likely to take the risks of founding fresh expressions of church and for caring for them in practices and commitments that enable their continual birth and rebirth over time.

God’s blessing in this Lenten season, Alan.

*A way of thinking and being that holds the past and future in tension, not in opposition, is crucial to the growth and vitality of churches.

The Prayers we pray – and those we avoid.

As a student a group of us attended Spring Harvest as Student Helpers We all shared a chalet and we catered for our evening meal together. We took it in turn to offer a blessing for the meal, it was Helen’s turn to say grace, “God, help us know when we have eaten enough and stop.” Those words stunned us. We had all been up early to help set up venues. A can of pop and biscuit grabbed running from one task to another through the day. We were starving, why could she be so cruel? There are some prayers which simply should not be prayed! We know to avoid prayers for those things we have no intention of changing.

Hunger, for instance, is one of the subjects about which we’ve learned to be careful. If you pray too seriously for hungry people you’ll end up skipping meals and giving your money away.

That’s why most of us are careful not to pray too seriously for the homeless. It’s awkward to pray for people who have no home when we have empty bedrooms.

We avoid praying about things that we don’t want to change. It’s frightening to pray about our careers. Does the law student with good career prospects in international tax law want to pray about whether God would like for her to be a social worker? Does the successful businessperson want to ask God if a lower paying job might make more of a contribution to the world?

We’re especially careful about praying for people we don’t like. Think of the person whose presence bothers you the most, who gets on your nerves and probably always will. When Jesus said “Pray for your enemies,” he was inviting us to the kind of prayer that will lead us to say something kind that we don’t want to say.

Most of the time we are afraid to pray about what we could be or what we could do because we prefer the life of comfort we have chosen rather than a life of prayer which allows God to choose for us. We are afraid to pray not because our prayers will be unanswered but because the will!

We’ve learned to pray, “God, make me a better person, but not so much better that I have to change the way I live.” Prayer is hard because we don’t want to start doing what God invites us to do or stop doing what we are used to doing.

King David went a long time without really praying. One afternoon a look turned into lust, and David didn’t pray about it. The lust turned into manipulation, and David acted in ways that he never would have considered if he had the courage to pray. David was able to keep from admitting what he had done or what he needed to do for a long time. He didn’t pray, because he didn’t want to face the harsh realities.

After being confronted by Nathan the Prophet David began to pray again. His words are recorded in Psalm 51. This is an honest psalm of a man struggling to pray honestly to God. The amazing thing about this psalm is that for all of its agony, there’s also a sense of relief. What David ignored for so long is finally brought out into the open. It couldn’t have been any easier for David to tell the truth about himself than it is for any of us. There is no painless way to stop protecting our easy lives and be honest to God.

Psalm 51 is the psalm set for Ash Wednesday when we begin our Lenten Pilgrimage. Lent should be time of self examination, of honest prayer not just a few weeks to give up some trifling luxury and pretend we are doing the will of God

People who pray passionately don’t have easy lives, but they have abundant lives. God has dreams for us that we’ve been afraid to imagine.

What would happen if we made a searching, fearless inventory of how much more we could be if we asked God for the courage to change and take chances?

God’s blessings for this Lenten season, Alan.

St Stephen’s day

To-day is St Stephen’s day. St Stephen is the first Christian martyr and he didn’t die of overeating. Instead he is stoned to death having enraged the pious and the orthodox by his works and his words. Why celebrate him to-day? Perhaps as a counter to the excess and good cheer of the day before. It is important to remember the dark side. Whenever we think of the stable we should also think of the cross. It’s possible to sentimentalise the stable but it’s quite impossible to sentimentalise the cross.

The background to Stephen’s story is trouble in the chapel. Stephen although a Jew is Greek speaking. He’s got a Greek name. He has friends and companions with Greek names. These Greeks had a more cosmopolitan outlook than the old guard. They felt they were treated as second class, pushed aside, their spiritual gifts ignored. Attempts to calm things down by giving them jobs didn’t succeed. Stephen’s fate is sealed when he is accused of challenging the central place that the Temple had among both the Jews and the first Christians. At this stage the Jews and the Christians had not separated into two separate and antagonistic communities.

Stephen is framed and brought before the Council on a capital charge. His death is preceded by a long sermon. In this sermon he describes Israel’s history in considerable detail. He lists Israel’s various acts of faithlessness in the past and he accuses his hearers of failing to respond to God’s saving acts in the present. “As your fathers did so do you”.

There is no invitation to believe the good news and be saved. He simply tells his hearers that they have betrayed and murdered the righteous one, he means Jesus of course. It’s almost as if he wants to invite the to murder him. They are not slow to take advantage of the invitation and proceed at once to his execution.

His death is the death of the righteous prophet. He is said to be full of the Holy Spirit-he gazes into heaven and sees the glory of God-and as he dies he forgives his murderers using words that recall Jesus’ own words. “Father forgive them for they not what they do” It is all rather splendid.

But is it wise? How appropriate is it to pray for the forgiveness of others when you provoked their sins in the first place. A sermon that provokes its hearers into murdering the preacher seems to me to be doubly ineffective-not only is the congregation left without hope its situation is gravely worsened. They now have blood on their hands.

This is what moralists call an occasion for sin. An occasion for sin is an invitation to sin-like leaving your car unlocked, or your back door open-or driving your relatives into a state of fury and exasperation by being difficult. For many people and in many ways Christmas is itself an invitation to sin. That’s why the government runs an anti-drink driving campaign at this time of year.

Stephen’s sermon seems to me to be an occasion for sin. Well that’s as may be but I am sure that such a point is very far from the author’s intention. The author of Acts presents the heroes of the faith as making a public profession of their beliefs regardless of the consequences. St Peter, St Paul and Stephen all make long speeches in Acts in defence of the faith and all suffer the consequences. There’s a sense of necessity about all this. In the same way Jesus’ own death was necessary. Stephen and Jesus before him die the death of martyrs in the same way as the prophets suffered for their fearless proclamation of God’s truth.

Stephen’s sermon lacks something in terms of pastoral sensitivity but then it is in a sense a speech from the dock and he would have known that his number was up. In any case he redeems himself in my eyes at least by his act of forgiveness. This echoes Jesus’own words of forgiveness from the cross. Stephen and Jesus before him die the death of martyrs in the same way as the prophets suffered for their fearless proclamation of God’s word.

The essence of God’s truth is that all should turn to him and be forgiven. God has compassion upon all but especially upon the poor, the outcast and the lost. Having accepted forgiveness for ourselves we should have compassion on others and work for their acceptance as well. So Jesus’ prays for those who crucify him and Stephen prays for those who stone him to death. But I expect that not all the first Christians would have admired Stephen’s

heroic death. They might not even have been entirely sorry. I can hear them now. He was a nice lad but he would go on so. You mustn’t upset people; whatever the cause. Don’t rock the boat.

And what has all this to do with Christmas. On the face of it not a great deal. Yet it is appropriate that Good King Wenceslas should have looked out on the Feast of Stephen and had compassion upon a poor man. The author of Luke/Acts would have been pleased. And it is also right to be reminded to-day of the cost of discipleship and of the necessity to bear witness no matter what.

That act of looking out is important. Christmas is far too much about looking in, shutting the door, excluding those who are not ours. Stephen wanted to look out beyond the cosy inward looking world of the synagogue. Wenceslas looked out from his cosy castle and had compassion on the poor. That’s what St Stephen’s day and Boxing Day should be about.

Looking out, bearing witness to the good news that is for all whether they are “ours” or not that is what this feast ought to be about. Facing up also to the cost of discipleship and of the necessity to walk the way of the cross whatever happens.

As Simeon said to Mary:

Behold this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel and for a sign that is spoken against. (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also) that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.

The “Real” Meaning of Christmas.

It was one of those moments in the Church Council. A service for children and their families was being discussed and it was said that it would provide a means to get across the real meaning of Christmas. And that to my mind raised the key question which I then proceeded to ask: “What is the real meaning of Christmas?” The first answer I received was this: It’s not about shopping or consumerism. It’s about the birth of a baby. Somebody then said: I thought it was about the birth of God. Another voice then whispered in my ear: “Incarnation”. Gosh I thought that’s a big word. All three answers have their merits and are an attempt to put into words what Christians have always believed about Jesus-that in him we see God come amongst us as one of us. So God became man in Palestine for our sakes and in this sense its true; the story of Jesus is indeed the story of the birth of God.

Luke has a story about this birth with which we are all familiar. Matthew mentions it and then tells other stories about Jesus early days and Mark and John don’t mention the subject at all. In their books Jesus enters the narrative at the moment when his ministry begins. So perhaps the story of the baby in the manger isn’t really doing the business and is misleading us as to the true significance of what God is doing in Jesus.

The Danish writer and philosopher Kierkegaard told a story to illustrate what God has done for us. It’s as good a story as any you’ll hear this season. Yes it does sound like a fairy tale but it’s actually deadly serious and very effective. Just suppose he said; once upon a time there was a girl who belonged to the poorest class and lived in the most deprived circumstances.

A powerful and noble-minded King fell in love with her. However he has a problem. How can he win her love? Would she be happy to live at his side? She would lack self-confidence. She would always remember that she was a humble girl and he a great King. How could the love between the King and the girl be a truly happy love without any delusion or deception creeping in? To overcome the girl with a display of glory and power might satisfy the girl for a moment but would not satisfy the King. To deceive the girl with a display of apparent humility would also fail to achieve a true union of love between them.

Kierkegaard applies this parable to God. How is God’s true love to win the hearts of human beings? How is God to reach out to us and win us? How is God to overcome the infinite difference between him and us? Union, Kierkegaard concludes must be attempted by descent. Love must alter itself.

God must become our equal and appear in the likeness of the humblest and in the form of a servant. And that likeness is no mere disguise as it would be if the King assumed a beggar’s cloak. God in Christ will be born in a stable, will suffer all things, endure all things and make experience of all things. He will be forsaken by his friends, condemned by the powers and put to death on a cross. This is how much God loves us. God has become, as we are that we might become as he is.

God out of love wants to be equal with the lowliest of the lowly. God the king plants himself in the frailty of a human being. He becomes a new person. How extraordinary, how painful and difficult, how much like death. Yet this is what God wants and does. To sit with us in love as an equal so that we the life of God shall know as God is manifest below.

Kierkegaard’s story is a parable-a very effective one. It’s won wide admiration and it shows that creative thinking about Jesus didn’t cease with the gospel writers. What Kierkegaard has done is that he has shown us in this way how Gods’ love works and that is the real message of Christmas.

The Season with a Reason

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During the Christmas season many churches will have a wayside poster proclaiming ‘Jesus – The reason for the season’. Despite having some theological reservations about the statement I will concur that Christmas is a season and a season with purpose.

The birth of Jesus is, no doubt, the most joyous and celebrated of all holidays in our culture. Families get together, gifts are exchanged, and a good time is usually had by all. Even people who know or believe little about Jesus celebrate together. However most people think of Christmas as a singular event and when it is over, it is over until the same time next year.

Although the birth of Jesus was a momentous event, it was not a singular event. Jesus’ coming has deep roots in the religious and cultural tradition of the Jewish people; and the fact that God – Emmanuel came in the form of Jesus has had a profound effect on human life that show no sign of abating even after two thousand years.

The season that we call Christmas began thousands of years before the birth of Jesus. The Messiah had been expected for a long time. Ever since the Jewish people got into so much trouble that they realised their condition was beyond human help, they had been expecting divine intervention into human affairs in the form of a messiah. Their expectation of a coming messiah was intense but also intangible. Mothers prayed that their unborn would be a male child, and that he would be the Messiah. The expectation of the coming was not casual, like expecting a white Christmas, it was heart rending and visceral.

When times were good the expectation was less intense. Like most of us they did not feel the need for divine assistance when they were getting on quite well by themselves. The intensity of expectation was in direct proportion to the degree of national and personal difficulty they were experiencing at any given time. But, the expectation was always there, albeit at times in the background. When times were tough, they expected the imminent arrival of divine help. Like present-day Christians, when in trouble, the first words out of their mouths were: “Dear God, where are you?” It became increasingly obvious to them, as it does to us, that God’s timetable does not necessarily correspond with our timetable.

Crises came and went and no messiah. False messiahs came and went. In every age there are religious charlatans who exploit for their own selfish purposes the simple faith of the naive and desperate. There is always a following. People who live in the zone of desperation will grasp at any straw of hope and help. 

There were many widely divergent concepts of what the Messiah would be like when he came. For the most part their hopes and dreams tended toward a political and religious “strong man,” a warrior-like messiah who would destroy the enemies of Israel and restore Israel to the power and splendour of the reign of David. They never dreamed that the Messiah would come when and as he did. Only Isaiah came close with his “suffering servant” who would be a light to all nations, and this was a fragmented glimpse that had little ideological support by the Jewish people (Isaiah 53). The Messiah is on his way! The time is drawing near that the hope of the ages will be fulfilled, but in a most unexpected manner.

Of course we would not have mistaken the truth of the Messiah, but how many people today yearn for a revived ‘messianic’ church which is full, wealthy and powerful.

The epicentre of Christmas is the birth of Jesus. Even those who know nothing but the solitary fact of his birth can be blessed by the event, but blessing and insight await those who know how it all came to pass. No one puts it all together in such a fetching story as Luke. Luke takes the loose ends of strange and obscure events occurring in the lives of the most unlikely people and leads us unerringly to Bethlehem, a stable, and the manger in which the newborn Messiah was laid by a wide-eyed teenage mother as a puzzled, but faithful, Joseph looked on.

Again Luke’s nativity began before the birth in Bethlehem. It is Luke, with his scientific mind, who tells us that in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (which she had kept secret), an angel appeared to a teenage girl named Mary and informed her that she would bear a son without benefit of an earthly father, who was to be called “Jesus.” The angel informed Mary of the pregnancy of Elizabeth, her kin. So, in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Mary came to visit. When Mary greeted Elizabeth the baby leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth said to Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” These two women share a secret that the world has waited long to know. As they revel in what they have come to know, Mary speaks a song of praise that has more to do with her unborn son than herself. It is Mary’s song. We call it “The Magnificat,” from its Latin name.

The song thanks and praises God for including her in this unfolding divine drama. As Mary sings of the power of God, we can read what she says to be the power to be exercised by her unborn son. It portends a revolution and a reversal of present reality. This is the most comprehensive statement of liberation theology in the Bible:

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1:51-55)

We look around the world today and realise that Mary’s prophecy is still to come to pass. Like our Jewish ancestors who looked for the coming messiah we hope and yearn for this new messianic world.

Do not give up hope, Christmas isn’t over yet!

Christmas blessings, Alan.